Mayer Hillman: Abandoning daylight saving time would be detrimental to public health throughout Europe

The EU’s plan to scrap daylight saving time will deny the public all the health benefits that come with changing the clocks, says Mayer Hillman

The European Commission is planning to abandon the practice of putting clocks forward by an hour in March and back an hour in October throughout the EU. This follows a substantial majority vote by MEPs in favour of reviewing daylight saving time and the findings of an online public consultation that ran for six weeks this summer in all member states, which also favoured ending the practice. “The message is very clear,” said the EU as they announced these results. Yet the commission’s proposal and the survey that endorsed it failed to take into account the strong evidence we already have on the benefits of daylight saving time, particularly when it comes to the population’s health.

As most people prefer light to darkness, the principal advantage stems from the better matching of daylight hours with waking hours. The summertime clock increases the number of “accessible” daylight hours that can be spent out and about and, with it, brings more exposure to sunlight. This improves wellbeing and quality of life.

It leads to more time for outdoor activities that would otherwise be curtailed by the onset of dusk. That represents particular health benefits not only for children, as most parents prefer them to be outdoors only when it is light, but also for older people who do not like going out after dusk owing to their declining capabilitiesin particular their poorer eyesight and hearing. It is also associated with an overall reduction in road casualties owing to better visibility when more people are likely to be outdoors in daylight. Other positive health benefits stem from the wider opportunities for outdoor physical exercise and social intercourse in the lighter evenings, which have attractions for the population as a whole.

When the commission began the process of assessing the impact of  daylight saving time, they paid particular attention to “recent(my italics) research. Yet no mention was made of the existence of earlier published studies by the PSI (Policy Studies Institute)[1] and ADAS,[2] both of which the EU itself had commissioned. Perhaps it was not aware of these reports on this very subject. It is as if the passage of time had invalidated their relevance as well as their findings since both of these reports concluded that the summertime clock arrangement was advantageous.

Clear research evidence on the advantages and disadvantages of either option was not provided to those completing the survey. For those who chose to read the additional information, there was only a brief mention of how “Summertime arrangements are estimated to generate positive effects linked to more outdoor leisure activities.” This seems an inadequate way to describe the benefits the summertime clock confers by adding an hour for outdoor activity in the latter part of the day on every day of the year (with the loss of an hour of morning daylight only in the winter months).

Furthermore, this acknowledgement of the benefits was countered by the survey next referring to research findings that suggest the changing of the clocks has an effect on the human biorhythm that “may be more severe than previously thought.” This resulted in the briefing concluding that the “evidence on overall health impacts . . . remains inconclusive.” However, both of the aforementioned reports strongly concluded that scrapping the changing clocks would have detrimental implications for public health.

The commission ran the survey to establish whether the current daylight saving time should be continued or abandoned. However, as a representation of EU citizens’ views, the survey results[3] are skewed enough to warrant caution. Among grounds for concern is the very low participation rates: at its highest, this was 3.79% of the German and 2.94% of the Austrian population and, at its lowest, 0.04% of the Italian and 0.02% of the UK population.

It seems to me that there was a failure comparable with the Brexit referendum in the way that the survey was conducted: in June 2016, the UK public were asked whether they wished to remain in the EU or leave itbut with little reliable information on the likely consequences of either course of action. Now, in 2018, we have a much clearer understanding of these consequences. So too with this sounding of public opinion: perhaps unsurprisingly, when asked about the proposal to abandon changing the clocks, most people expressed their support, with many perhaps thinking that it’s much simpler to be relieved of this unnecessary bureaucratic inconvenience. Had respondents been properly informed of the outcome of their preference, namely that they will be denied all the health benefits that come with the changing of the clocks, I am confident that the vote would have been very different.

The commission will now make a proposal to the European Parliament to end the current biannual arrangement of adjusting the clocks. This damaging policy proposal has hardly been noticed and is likely to be enacted soon unless urgent action is taken. In its absence, European citizens will only have themselves to blame.

Mayer Hillman was senior fellow emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster until recently. For over 50 years his research has highlighted the imperative of incorporating environmental considerations into public policy.

Competing interests: I was the author of the PSI report on daylight saving time that is mentioned in this article.

[1]  Hillman M. Summertime in the European Community. Policy Studies Institute, 1989.

[2]  Crabb J. Application of Summertime in the European Union. ADAS, 1995.

[3] European Commission. “Public consultation on EU Summertime Arrangements: Report of Results.” Brussels. European Commission COM (2018) 639 final.